Think small: how to improve China-EU security cooperation


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Oliver Bräuner
Oliver Bräuner

Researcher with SIPRI's China and Global Security Project

From a European perspective, a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ should also include cooperation on both traditional and non-traditional security issues. However, more than ten years after the establishment of the ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ between China and the European Union, cooperation on global security issues remains underdeveloped and both sides have a poor record of joining their diplomatic forces to tackle for instance the ongoing conflict in Syria or the Iranian nuclear issue. Military cooperation remains even more limited and so far does not go beyond some cautious exchanges within the UN framework, such as anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden or peacekeeping missions in Africa. This stands in stark contrast to the economic relationship between the two sides, which continues to deepen even in times of a global economic crisis.

Although both sides have repeatedly stated their willingness to deepen their cooperation on global security issues and to intensify the ties between their militaries, prospects appear rather bleak for the near- and medium-term. There are a number of obstacles that have proven to be insurmountable in the past ten years and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

The first is the very structure of the EU. Despite the establishment of the External Action Service and other reforms of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) introduced through the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the EU remains a supranational entity. Its 28 member states often have diverging interests and thus continue to struggle with the formulation of joint positions on many global security issues. In addition, the EU still does not have a joint military structure independent of NATO and defence spending in the region has stagnated or been reduced as a result of austerity measures related to the eurozone crisis. As the EU also does not have any direct security interests or military assets in the Asia-Pacific region, China does not take it seriously as an independent global security actor.

The second obstacle is China’s security agenda. The EU and some of its (mostly larger) member states have a broad international security agenda, with an ambition to play an active role on almost all international issues, and a strong emphasis on human security and non-traditional threats. Beijing, on the other hand, pursues a much more narrow security agenda that focuses largely on traditional threats in the Asia-Pacific region, mostly related to maritime disputes with its neighbours. These interests are usually seen through the lens of Beijing’s increasingly competitive relationship with the Washington. President Xi Jinping’s ‘new type of great power relations’ can be seen as another sign of China’s fixation on the United States. China’s traditional policy of ‘non-interference’ in the domestic affairs of other countries further limits the potential for cooperation. Consequently, the security agendas of China and the EU only overlap on a very limited number of issues.

The third obstacle is a continued and deep-seated lack of trust between the two sides. China perceives the EU arms embargo as a sign of disrespect, even though SIPRI research has documented a considerable amount of militarily-relevant European technology transfers during the 25 years of its existence. On the EU side, disappointment over the perceived lack of political reforms and a deterioration of the human rights situation in China – especially since the 2008 Beijing Olympics – is growing.

As the EU also does not have any direct security interests or military assets in the Asia-Pacific region, China does not take it seriously as an independent global security actor

While these obstacles will continue to limit China-EU security cooperation, there are still a number of foreign and security policy goals shared by both sides. However, after a decade of grand expectations and disappointments, both sides need to be realistic about what they can achieve. Cooperation should start on a small scale and be focused on rather specific or technical issues that are both feasible and mutually beneficial. Exchanges between militaries on both sides should be increased, especially through joint education and training programmes for officers at military academies and defence universities on both sides.

This would lead to more transparency and understanding of the other side’s security concerns. China and the EU could deepen cooperation (or at least coordination) on the protection of citizens abroad, and particularly on non-combatant evacuation operations from war zones. A number of EU member states have already provided logistical support for the Chinese evacuation operation from Libya in 2011. In this context, the EU should actively support exchanges between Chinese and European energy companies on how to best protect their employees and assets in conflict zones.

Practical cooperation in the area of arms control and disarmament should also be intensified. These efforts could build on successful past cooperation, for example through the EU Outreach programme, and include actors from the state, military and industry on both sides and preferably also from third countries. One option would be to jointly develop best practices to limit the destabilising flow of arms to fragile conflict zones, for example in Africa and the Middle East.

Such a ‘think small’ approach would probably go against the natural instincts of both the Chinese and EU leaders, who usually seem to favour grandiose and much publicised ‘strategies’ and large-scale events. It would also mean that the EU would need to officially relinquish more tasks to its member states. Nevertheless, it could help circumvent some seemingly immovable obstacles and move the EU-China security relationship on after ten years of disappointments and stagnation.

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